Ask citizens if they want more control over the people who run their government, and most will reply in the affirmative. Kurt Triplett agrees with this notion, and it has him a little worried.
Triplett, who is King County Executive Ron Sims' chief of staff, insists that for the greater good of King County, the director of the county's Records, Elections, and Licensing Services Division (i.e., the director of elections) needs to remain an appointed position, not an elected one. Enter the boosters of Initiative 25, who have collected 74,000 signatures—well over the 54,000 required to trigger council consideration—in support of putting the issue of whether to have an elected director of elections to a public vote.
In July or August, the King County Council will decide whether to put I-25 on the November ballot as a charter amendment, although there are a handful of more nuanced maneuvers the council could undertake to effectively table this issue. "We are working on persuading the council to do the right thing and...[put] the charter amendment on the ballot this year," says I-25 campaign spokesperson Toby Nixon, a former Republican state legislator who represented portions of Kirkland, Redmond, and Woodinville.
King County is the only county in the state without an elected director of elections. "The elected county positions of the other 38 counties are really held publicly accountable for elections," says Washington's Republican secretary of state, Sam Reed. "The press holds them publicly accountable, and the public does in public forums."
The three key figures behind I-25 are Nixon, King County Republican Party advisory board member Glenn Avery, and political strategist Sharon Gilpin. They say that before the 2008 presidential election, a new nonpartisan director of elections should take office—one who doesn't fit neatly into Ron Sims' hip pocket, according to Gilpin.
On the flip side, Sims and the King County Democrats say that when an office is appointed, a more qualified candidate can be picked for the job, free from the occasionally toxic politics of re-election campaigns. They also argue that an elected director of elections who does a poor job can retain his or her position for years without consequence.
"An elected auditor could screw up every election for four years, and you wouldn't have an opportunity to make any changes to that," Triplett says. "In the appointed system, the executive can fire and replace that person immediately."
Staking out a more partisan basis for opposition than Triplett, the King County Democrats claim that despite the fact that I-25 would call for a nonpartisan election, it is in fact a Republican-backed initiative which seeks to diminish Sims' powers as executive and make amends for 2004's gubernatorial debacle, when King County shouldered most of the blame for two required recounts.
"I think the Democrats will look at this as a 'defend the job that's been done' issue and the Republicans will excoriate it again," Democratic consultant Cathy Allen says. "This all goes back to 2004 and which side you were on."
Conversely, I-25's backers say that Sims just wants to retain his power of appointment. "Perhaps he's afraid that if he had an independent voice in that position, that person might not be nearly as enthusiastic about going to all-mail balloting as Ron seems to be," says Nixon, an ardent opponent of the proposed switch to a mail-only system.
Susan Sheary, chairwoman of the King County Democrats, says that their organization simply supports the director of elections as a professional, nonpolitical appointment. She claims that the I-25 supporters are mostly Republicans having a fit.
"It's a group of disgruntled Republicans that formed a coalition," Sheary says. "They've been fighting Ron Sims and the election department for four years."
While the King County Democrats say this is a partisan issue, support for I-25 has crossed party lines. High-profile supporters include Republican Reed, Democratic State Auditor Brian Sonntag, and former Green Party county executive nominee Gentry Lange. The biggest financial contributor to I-25 so far has been Seattle real-estate baron Martin Selig, who donated $25,000 to the campaign in May. (So far, the I-25 campaign has raised roughly $130,000. As of now, no formal opposition has surfaced, but Sheary says an independent campaign to fight I-25 is "being talked about.")
"Brian Sonntag can say what he wants," grumbles consultant Allen, "but he doesn't live here, and he doesn't matter here."
Sonntag, who lives in Tacoma, says his rationale for supporting the initiative is simple: He believes in people having the opportunity to choose their leaders.
"I didn't think whether you're a Republican or Democrat would enter into what is really a governance issue," Sonntag says. "I'm befuddled by partisan opposition."
Recent history shines an unflattering light on King County's elections office. In 2002, the county failed to mail out thousands of absentee ballots. Then, in 2004, the elections office failed to follow procedures concerning signatures on mailed ballots, counted some provisional ballots as regular votes, and discovered ballots that were not factored into the first count.
The County Council formed the King County Citizens' Election Oversight Committee in 2003 as a bipartisan panel that would suggest changes to the elections office in the wake of the aforementioned debacles. In 2005, Sims formed his own panel, the King County Independent Task Force on Elections, which functioned similarly.
Sims and the County Council did make many recommended changes, which included setting in motion the implementation of mail-only voting, consolidating facilities to improve security, and enhancing voter-registration efforts. But one recommendation that county officials refused to act on was the election of a county auditor. Susan Hutchison, the former KIRO-TV news anchor and a onetime member of the county's Independent Task Force, is still not happy with that result.
"They should have immediately moved on that issue after our task force met," Hutchison says. "We didn't work for weeks and months on end to put forth recommendations that were to be looked at lightly and ignored."
The last time an important King County office shifted from an appointed to elected format was the sheriff's position in 1997. Sims and his predecessor, Gov. Gary Locke, didn't support that change, but the County Council, narrowly controlled (7-6) by Republicans at the time, voted along party lines in May 1996 to put the proposed change on the ballot.
In November 1996, voters passed the charter amendment and, the following year, King County elected its first nonpartisan sheriff since 1968: current Republican Congressman Dave Reichert, who had been Sims' appointment for sheriff before the process began.
Current King County Sheriff Sue Rahr says she has not decided whether to support I-25, but adds that "the level of accountability and scrutiny is far more intense in an elected position."
Then there's I-25's third rail: those who support the concept of an elected elections director, but not I-25—at least not yet. Democrat Bob Ferguson, a King County Council member whose district includes North Seattle, Shoreline and Bothell, says he supports an elected director of elections but thinks the 2008 presidential election could be bungled if it is in the hands of a "rookie."
"I wanted to do this in 2009 because we just recently got a full-time auditor on board in the last couple months," he says. (Similarly, state Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz has voiced support for a 2009 election.) "And frankly, I want to have some stability in office, which has been sorely lacking in recent times."
Mark Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, feels that neither system is infallible when it comes to finding the right person for the job.
"Election alone doesn't ensure that someone will be competent or not," Smith says. "You can say the same thing about appointments. At the end of the day, you still need good people."